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The key to Europe’s recovery

Europe’s economy is enjoying its first meaningful recovery since 2008 but it is a slow, stuttering comeback. To secure and accelerate the turnaround, policymakers should focus on how to increase lending to the real economy and fill the funding gap left by the continent’s shrinking banks.

Alberto Gallo, Head of European Macro Credit Research, RBS

The signs of recovery are broad-based: better growth data, a revived housing market, improving business sentiment and rising exports. Most countries are running a primary surplus and the threat of imminent downgrade no longer hangs over sovereign debt. Further afield, a gathering US recovery is underpinning European export demand and fuelling the purchase of European assets like Vodafone’s USD130 billion stake in Verizon and Microsoft’s purchase of Nokia’s mobile division.


The recovery should ease debt pressures, giving governments more time to introduce reforms and lessen austerity. We calculate that debt-to-GDP ratios could fall an extra 5 or 6 per cent in the next four years (if the pickup delivers an additional quarter point of growth, a quarter point more inflation and a half point cut in public deficits per year).


The lack of credit to European businesses, however, remains a drag on the recovery. The worst of Europe’s credit crunch may be behind us but eurozone banks remain deep in the de-leveraging process. They have cut EUR3 trillion of assets and EUR270 billion of loans to non-financial companies since last May and we think there’s more ahead. These loans will need to be replaced if the recovery is to continue.


Worse still, it is lenders from struggling peripheral Europe who are cutting the most. While bigger European banks are replenishing their capital and liquidity and returning to profitability, mid-tier periphery banks in Spain and Italy remain undercapitalised, exposed to sovereign risk and face rising bad loans. They can’t sell assets at depressed prices as this would reduce their capital ratios. But at the same time they can’t easily raise capital because investors remain concerned about their bad assets. It’s a Catch-22 situation.


There is no silver bullet, no one plan that can fill the near-EUR300 billion gap in non-financial lending. Non-bank sources of finance – such as bonds and securitisations – are filling some of the funding gap but the scale of adjustment is huge given Europe’s traditional reliance on banks – 90 per cent of the credit supply compared with 45 per cent in the US. Only a mix of support from the private and public sector can reverse the negative loop of capital flight, higher lending rates, bankruptcies and an increasing sovereign-bank nexus.


The ECB’s liquidity operations and last year’s bond-buying pledge have steadied the ship by reducing the sovereign risk hanging over banks in the periphery, while the eurozone’s new bank bail-in regime reduces states’ exposure to the fallout from potential bad banks.


Pro-active policies are now needed to restart lending. The ECB programme of bank stress tests next year promises to improve transparency across banks and potentially to encourage bidders for bank assets. That should start to plug the capital hole that is holding back business lending.


But before banks fix themselves with the ECB’s help, greater public support is needed to help finance business. The European Investment Bank needs to do more to boost lending to SMEs. It lends around EUR45 billion of new money each year (which will rise to EUR60 billion next year) but has announced new plans for another EUR55-100 billion programme.


This could partially offset the impact of deleveraging. However, public intervention from the EIB hinges on fiscal coordination and eventually on core European countries. After the September elections, we think a likely Merkel win could herald a slightly friendlier German stance to the periphery. But the risk of complacency and lack of reforms in Italy, Spain and France remains high.


A lot still has to go right to secure the recovery but so far investors are right to buy into the turnaround story.



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